Bound Review

Originally published on Trevor Trove on August 21, 2016

TL; DR(eview) – Bound is very much a title that emphasizes the artistic merit of video games over the gameplay. A beautiful, albeit short and rather pedestrian, experience that weaves together dance and visual art.

Bound is a new title developed by Plastic Studios and SIE Santa Monica Studios. The narrative of the game follows a pregnant woman as she walks a beach with an art notebook in hand. As she makes her way down the beach, she flips through the notebook pages and each page transforms into an abstract memory of sorts, presumably a fictionalized moment of the woman’s childhood. The abstractions see you playing as the “Princess,” a ballerina struggling to dance through the memory. Each memory seems based on a specific moment narratively, told through a level design heavily influenced by visual artists like M.C. Escher.

My experience with Bound has been one of the oddest in recent memory. As I played through it last week, I did not have a fun time with it. Playing through each of the 5- to 15-minute levels nearly put me to sleep on multiple occasions. The art design of the game is interesting but constantly gets in its own way thanks to the occasional jarring camera switch and a “peel-away” effect – where, as your character moves behind a wall or piece of the environment, that obstruction peels away in an attempt to keep your view clear. While I appreciate the intent of this effect, it often distracted more than it helped because I would then walk into a wall or statue thinking the path was clear.

Furthermore, the game’s primary mechanic is dancing through the levels and light platforming elements. Slowly. And the only real variation of this mechanic – when you are attacked by elements in the world like a string of pearls or paper airplanes, you have to hold R2 to activate a “ribbon shield” of sorts – forces you to progress even slower while you dance through these obstacles.

If I had reviewed the game immediately upon completion a few nights ago, I’d have probably left it here or added a few more gripes and left it firmly in a do not buy suggestion.

But time apart has (sort of) made the heart grow fonder.

I still have no real desire to return to the game myself, even though a “speedrun” mode unlocks after you’ve completed it the first time. But in thinking about the game after the fact, I have come to recognize that there were probably a number of external factors that prevented me from enjoying this game, that do not fall on the game itself.

  • My recent playthrough of ABZÛ probably fulfilled my need to experience one of these “art over gameplay” types of games. If I hadn’t just sat through that title, I likely would have had more patience for the slow, relatively peaceful couple of hours with this game.
  • Similarly, the fact that I was playing Bound as an alternative to No Man’s Sky when that game was crashing on me left and right did it no favors. Not only was No Man’s Sky another title that had you slowly exploring sometimes-colorful worlds, but the frustration inherent in having to play another title because that one wasn’t working probably subconsciously worked against Bound.
  • External to all of these titles, I definitely felt myself dealing with a temporary bout of depression as I had been lethargic all week. As a result, I imagine the themes and story presented in Bound frustrated me when, any other day, I might have found them empathetic and lauded a game tackling subject matter of this nature. As it was, I predicted pretty much the remainder of the arc after only the first sequence and then just stayed perpetually grumpy when the game didn’t surprise me instead. It’s not the game’s fault that I’ve seen this kind of story enough in other mediums that it didn’t resonate with me here. Bound tells a self-contained story throughout its handful of vignettes and, to somebody who has been in similar circumstances and the protagonist, it might be incredibly profound. I, myself, have not and couldn’t muster up the energy to enjoy the experience with that mindset.

All of this serves as a reminder that reviewers and critics don’t review in a vacuum. Our opinions are colored by our lives and the experiences therein. This was a game that didn’t connect for me overall. I found it sluggish and almost too much “art for art’s sake.” But six months from now I could have played the same game and revered it. Ultimately, even though I didn’t enjoy it, I would still encourage anyone who might even be the slightest bit interested to play through it because it might hit for you in all of the ways in missed for me. And it would seem the wide critical landscape for the game would support that narrative.

There was one notable takeaway for me: the particular moment where I looked at a level design and said “oh I recognize that painting aesthetic. I’ve definitely seen those red, blue, and yellow squares before. That’s pretty cool.” So I went and looked up the artist’s name (by Googling “red yellow blue squares art”).

I don’t know how long the name Piet Mondrian will stick with me. But I know it now and have a greater appreciation for his work as a direct result of it serving as an inspiration for Bound.

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